Sunday, January 6, 2013

More truths (and untruths) about sentencing -- Part 1

Among Oregon's justice and public safety watchers there has been a lot of controversy and discussion about the report of the Commission on Public Safety. There will be even more during the coming legislative session. Here are some of the issues:

The group was appointed by the Governor and had orders to save money by reducing the number of people sent to prison. There was only one dissident voice on the commission, that of Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote. No public comment was allowed on the report.

The chair of the commission, now-retired Chief Justice Paul DeMuniz, gave assurances that there would be no attempt to overturn voter-approved truth-in-sentencing provisions such as Measure 11. Yet the final report calls for the systematic dismantling of many Measure 11 provisions and would effectively repeal Measure 57, which gives judges the power, but not the requirement, to send repeat property offenders to prison.

Judge DeMuniz did not allow an up or down vote on ANY of the specific proposals.The report was merely "passed on" en bloc by the Commission, so it is very hard to tell who supported what and whether the Commission itself even recommends any of the proposals.

There is an "Alternate Report, authored primarily by John Foote, endorsed by the rest of Oregon's district attorneys and approved by three other commissioners.

It calls for completely eliminating sentences for felons convicted of the sale or delivery of marijuana and for felony driving while suspended. These are cost-saving steps that would reduce prison beds.

The Alternate Report further proposes an expansion of probation programs to mirror Hawaii's highly successful HOPE program, providing for intense judicial supervision and zero tolerance for violations. Violations would result in micro-sanctions, such as jail sentences ranging from 1 to 5 days.

There is a great deal of urban mythology around Oregon's sentencing laws. Here are some facts:

  • It is impossible to be sentenced to prison for mere possession of marijuana.
  • Fewer than 25 percent of convicted felons are given a prison sentence AT ALL.
  • The average prison sentence is less than 4 years.
  • At 22 percent, Oregon has the LOWEST rate in the United States of "non-violent offenders" in prison.

Many of those "non-violent offenders" are in prison for selling meth to kids or for home burglaries where the homeowners were absent.

The Commission's staff claimed a quarter of Oregon's prison inmates are "low risk" and don't need to be in prison. I'll tell you why that isn't true and provide a link to the list that identifies the felons, their convictions, their sentences and their criminal record.

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